The Creative Journey
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Marathon or Sprint: Lessons I’ve learned in my novel writing course

In February this year I began a 6 month novel writing course held at the Australian Writers’ Centre. The course facilitator is Award Winning Australian novelist Pamela Freeman. When I first signed up, I entertained myself by imaging that finished novel sitting in my hands in August, the entirety of the Australian publishing industry bashing down my door to sign me up.

I really had no expectations beyond signing a billion dollar publishing deal, retiring and living the life of a full time writer. The usual things, realistic, understated, you know what I mean.

As we draw to the end of the weekly sessions, and prepare for a month break I’ve found my mind turning over exactly what I’ve learned going to this course. Beyond a brush up on basic grammar – most of which I still get wrong from time to time – the course has been a gift.

I’ve learned that it is okay for me to not only want to be a writer, but to give myself permission to do it. I’ve learned that the voices that plagued my head for decades, long dead relatives for the most part, have only the place I give them.

I’ve learned that writing is a passion as important to me as breathing or Doritos and French Onion dip. And most importantly I’ve learned that writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint.

I write fast. It’s a fact. It’s a fact I’ve struggled with for decades. I read articles and interviews with published authors who frankly make writing a novel sound like the most painful process on earth. The tears, the tantrums, the pulling of hair and bleeding through every orifice to find just the right word. I don’t write like that. I turn up, and let it happen.

But the problem with writing fast is that I have always expected to finish quickly too. I don’t. The words flow but the story seems to never get to the point.

I’ve come to realise that attempting to write an Epic Fantasy without a plan, without knowing who the characters are and without taking the time to properly world build, is really a set up to give myself permission to fail.

I have a tendency to jump write in. A couple of days of “this could be cool,” or “what happens if I press here.” My epic fantasy trilogy is an exercise in exactly that. How to do I expect to get from A to Z without knowing what’s going on?

I realised that like all marathons, writing requires you to warm up first. If you run a marathon you don’t just turn up on the day and expect to win, or even finish. It takes months of commitment for a pay off. You train, you eat right, you work daily towards the goal of increasing your fitness to run the marathon. If you don’t put in the work, how can you expect to pull off the win.

My writing has taken a massive turn in the last few months, and this course has shown me the power of hindsight. Over the years I’ve had stories that plodded along nicely enough only to end up in the dusty grave yard on my hard drive (seriously I had a folder called Dusty Graveyard where all manuscripts went to die).

I never understood why. I just “got bored,” or “the story was stupid.” The reality is – and it’s something I’ve come to understand, as much as learn in this course – I didn’t bother to do the training. I just turned up and expected to win the race.

Writing is a solitary exercise in that most of the time it’s just you and a computer screen. Yes your Muse is hovering over your shoulder, and there are characters running around inside your head directing the action, but it is up to you to do the training and preliminary work. No one is going to stand over you and whack you on the head with a ruler to get it done.

Last night I realised that my biggest plot hole (in Darkened North) and my biggest obstacle (overall) to ever becoming a writer is my lack of patience. I have for years – and I’ve got no idea why – felt that time was running out.

I was too old to do this. I should have done it years ago, that sort of self-talk. Now you could assume that this is part of some mid-life crisis, but the truth is I’ve been saying that to myself since I was in my early twenties.

What if I die before I finish? What if someone else writes the same thing, only better? What if I go senile (seriously that was an excuse for a while)?

This course has given me a lot more strength, both from a personal confidence perspective and a writing one. I’ve also come to acknowledge that the excuses are just fear taking the reins.

I tend to throw myself into things because I’m ‘racing against the clock.’ What clock that is, is anyone’s guess. I don’t enjoy the process of figuring things out because I’ve convinced myself it’s just “procrastination.”

I have to do it. Now. Right now. Why are you distracting me?

Writing anything takes time and it’s the time portion I have the most trouble with. The other day after writing a few thousand words my father hit me with the question all writers hate “when are you going to make money out of this writing thing?”

And the answer is; I don’t know. I may never make money out of my writing but that won’t stop me from doing it.

My series – Darkened North – has some pretty serious problems. I can admit that to myself. Hell, I can admit that to the two or three people who’ll read this blog. And the problems are of my own creation. By buying into the various neurosis that live in my head I’ve created; a world I’ve not bothered to understand, a magic system I only vaguely understand, and characters I know like I know random people I meet at the pub who add me on Facebook the next day, and storylines that quiet honestly I have no idea of.

Darkened North needs time to cook. A strange thing to say given I’ve been procrastinating on the idea for about 18 months, but it’s true. I need to do my work, not necessarily research but more of the foundation work to ensure I can pull off not one but three novels set in this world.

The point to all of this – and surprisingly, there is one – is that one of the reason I’ve never actually achieved my goal of writing a novel is that I’ve never taken it seriously. I’ve never put in the work I needed to, the wiring and plumbing and insulation. I’ve jumped straight into the “pretty bits people can see,” and practically ignored the behind the scenes bits no one will ever see.

Last night while I was watching an episode of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries I realised Darkened North is not fatally injured, but it’s in a critical condition. This isn’t me being hard on myself or procrastinating, it’s me acknowledging when you cut corners the world you are trying to build is flimsy and see through. Flabby.

Normally at this stage – although I never knew what it was before – I would throw the whole thing out, feel sorry for myself for a while and then in a year or two maybe three start out on a new story. This time I’m not going to do that. I’m going to take the lessons I’ve learned in my course, the tips and suggestions of my classmates and our mentor Pamela Freeman and I’m going to start again. Sort of.

You see time will run out when it will, regardless of whether or not a write a novel, don’t write a novel, am considering writing a novel. No matter what I do, I’m not getting out of life alive. None of us do.

What I can do though is take my writing seriously and leave time to worry about itself. I need to do the background work and when I know what I’m doing and where I’m going, write the story Darkened North deserves.

Who knows, maybe some of what I’ve already written will make it. It probably will, but to build a world that can sustain a three book series is going to take more than blind faith and hopeful wishes.

I know I’ll do it. It’s a marathon I mean to win.

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